Hope, really? Is that what you call it?

Posted: December 14, 2022 in Uncategorized

Hope, really? Is that what you call it?

Perhaps in preparation for this sermon one might remember what John O;Donohue wrote when he said that “Wisdom is not just special knowledge about something. Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” This is not about sameness, assimilation or unification of thought. It is rather about that which is always more than the sum of its parts, more than, an awareness of the alternative and a willingness to walk into it.

Much of the gospel story this Fourth Sunday in Advent centres on Matthew’s rather sketchy outline surrounding the birth of Jesus. And there is a significant difference between Matthew’s version – which we heard today, and Luke’s version – which we traditionally hear around this time of the year, and that there is a fair degree of difference. The reality is that they are very different.  And despite attempts to the contrary by both the church and the many ‘Carols by Candlelight’ events, they can’t be harmonized into one grand, neat story. In artistic terms, Luke’s picture is full of bright primary colours. A cheerful story. A buoyant, hopeful, joyous story. Matthew’s picture, on the other hand, is a picture using a darker palette. The colours are more sombre, darker hues. A more gothic like story – disturbing, disquieting. Having said that it is perhaps almost better to say that Matthew’s story does not actually narrate the birth of Jesus at all. It is implied.

Meanwhile, in the church or amongst the various so called followers of the Jesus Way there was and still is much theological ink and energy wasted on the debate surrounding the matter of virgin birth or virgin conception. It is also possible to believe that, despite what many English translations of the Bible say: Matthew did not believe in a virgin birth. Neither did Paul. But Luke probably did.

Here we have it, our absolutes, our belief system, our so-called truth, our faith, our Christianity all challenged by our own understanding of scripture and its place. And like the early Christians we too handle this in various ways between total fundamentalist denial of the thought and a liberal silence in the face of its own deconstructive prowess. Some efforts become canonized and others persecuted in the interests of a singular point of view. Even among the most adventurous scholars we hear the call for understanding, of our minds, and an acknowledgement that too often they shelter us from the realities we might uncover.

WE note also that the Hebrew text of Isaiah which Matthew quotes clearly has nothing to do with virginity. At most it means only that a young woman, who is now a virgin, will become pregnant. No ‘miracle’ is intended. What has fueled the more recent debate goes back some 70 years or so. When in the 1950s the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible properly translated the Isaiah words with ‘young woman’, “some people were so upset that they sponsored public burnings of the version.  The official Catholic translation, the New American Bible, uses ‘virgin’ in (Isaiah) because bishops overruled the Catholic scholars and demanded that it be mistranslated.”  (Miller 2003:95)

So where in the midst of all this, is our hope?  The ground of this Advent season?  And how can we be empowered to live fully, to love wastefully, and dare be all we can possibly be, as the late Bishop Jack Spong urged us?

The hard truth is that we do not anticipate that Jesus will come, or come again, in any literal sense.
Our hope is shaped by a ‘progressive theological’ understanding of incarnation: Our God or whatever we name as God acts in the world in and through our actions. As we are open to this God’s working within us, Jesus Way becomes authentic human embodiment. As we seek to serve our God, we are never alone.  As the old tale reminds us we experience again and again, Emmanuel, our God-is-with-us. So during these closing days of Advent and in the rapidly approaching season of Christmas, we can anticipate God’s renewing and transforming present-ness, now, even as we remember God’s focused ‘coming’ or embodiment in Jesus in the past. And this hope we expound is less about the supernatural or the other than natural and more about an alternative view of presence that is not outside of nor over or under but rather embodied within. A sort of certain hope that awaits our expression. A hope we can encourage others to also recognise ‘in the sacred’ where they are.

This also suggests that our hope is directed to the unfolding of the sacred, the working out of the Spirit and that the primary evangelical task is the participation in this sacred enterprise unconditionally is the call. This Advent and this Christmas, maybe we can manifest or embody that hope in all the nooks and crannies of our various communities. Amen.

Bibliography:Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad, 1993.



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